Go with the dough
There was so much more to the ’90s than sun-dried tomatoes and grunge.
I was an apprentice chef, wide-eyed and ready to experiment with anything food and non-food related. It was a time when fusion was in full flight, where tropical fruit and random Asian ingredients collided with disastrous effects. In the ’90s something called “bush tucker” arrived as an ill-conceived food concept and did a lot of damage to the reputation of native ingredients. It took about 20 years and René Redzepi to travel from Denmark to put a lot of these ingredients back on the map.
At the time, I was blessed to work in a suburban restaurant in Kew, Capers, where the owner-chefs, Gerald and Ian, had travelled extensively. They had a broad understanding of food and the importance of context. This recipe we used as part of our bread service. It was also the first bread I was taught to bake, so I am somewhat nostalgic for it.
This recipe has been reliable for the past 24 years and is relatively timeless. I have not needed to change or adapt it at all. When I was shown this recipe, focaccia was the “it” thing. Every cafe seemed to have a toasted focaccia or a Mediterranean vegetable stack on the menu. These often contained the dreaded, aforementioned sun-dried tomato in some form, or olive paste. If your focaccia wasn’t filled with sun-dried tomatoes then you would surely find them in your salad or scattered elsewhere through the menu.
This recipe has been invaluable: great for feeding large groups and probably one of the easiest bread recipes I have cooked. If you haven’t made bread before, then I think this recipe is a good place to start.
To begin a meal with a slice of this bread is pure indulgence. Don’t baulk at the amount of cream that is added. Think of it as a butter replacement, only more delicious. Olive oil is not required for dipping either.
The recipe can be easily adapted, too. Add some cheese to the top, or try a selection of different herbs. Just don’t add sun-dried tomatoes.
– 2½ tsp yeast
– 3 tbsp warm water
– 1kg flour
– 1 tbsp salt
– 2 tbsp olive oil
– 560ml cold water
– 300ml cream
– pinch sea salt
– 1 tbsp rosemary needles
In a small bowl mix the yeast and warm water. Leave for five minutes to activate (until it becomes foamy).
In a large mixing bowl, mix the flour, salt and olive oil. Make a well in the middle of the flour and add the cold water and foamy yeast. Knead the dough by hand for five minutes or, alternatively, transfer into a mixer with a dough hook. After kneading, place the dough into a large bowl. Rub the dough with a little oil and cover with a damp cloth to prove to room temperature for about one hour.
After one hour or when the dough has doubled in size, transfer it to a lightly floured bench and knead once again to knock any air from the dough. Roll or with your hands push the dough out to about one-centimetre thick and transfer to a lightly oiled baking sheet. Leave the focaccia in a warm place to prove.
When it has doubled in size, make little divots with your fingertips pushing down into the dough. Gently drizzle the cream over the dough so that it fills the divots and creates a thick coating. Finally season with a good pinch of sea salt flakes and sprinkle the rosemary needles.
Leave for 10 minutes before baking in a preheated oven at 200ºC for 12 minutes.
2016 Lady and the Hawk mourvèdre rosé, Central Victoria ($25) – Liam O’Brien, head sommelier, Cutler & Co
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 4, 2017 as "Focaccia". Subscribe here.